I just finished Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The novel, about the Nigerian war against Biafra and the Igbo people of the 1960s, won the 2007 Orange Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
This fits into my two recent obsessions: novels about war and novels about Africa.
Today I’ll focus on Africa.
I’ve read a number of fine novels from a white colonialist perspective. Though they take place in different time periods, all echo Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, about the brutal exploitation that was the colonialist venture. As such they contain more insight into the colonialist’s soul than into Africa itself. (The Norton critical edition, which I linked, looks interesting. It contains essays by Achebe and Edward Said, among others.)
So it is refreshing to read Africa from the perspective of African authors. I’ve just begun, so I can’t do much of a comparative analysis. Top on my list is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, which, like Half a Yellow Sun, takes place in Nigeria. It is closely followed by Wizard of the Crow by Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o*. Both have a timeless quality that give them a universal dimension despite the specificity of place that allows a reader insight into African culture. Things Fall Apart depicts precolonial tribal and village life and the impact of colonialism that follows. Wizard of the Crow is a satire set in a fictional post-colonial dictatorship. The country is rife with corruption, cronyism, and repression, but a magical trickster character can survive and win. Despite the harsh realities they depict, both books reveal a thread of hope.
The tale of the Biafran war and starvation depicted in Half of a Yellow Sun struck me as more despairing. Perhaps because the tone is realistic. The story is told from the close point of view of several of the major characters — two well-to-do twin sisters, their two lovers, and a houseboy who works for one of the sisters. The ethnic warfare, the assault on civilians, and the hunger were palpable.
If one wants to know how it feels to survive as a civilian in wartime, this is the book to read.
Stylistically, while Half a Yellow Sun was interesting and informative, the novel as a whole didn’t have the impact I had expected. The narrative lost focus about half-way through and only recovered at the very end. It would have been more compelling if there had been fewer point-of-view characters and if the author had defined more clearly the trajectory of the plot or character arcs.
Still, it was fascinating to read a female novelist’s portrait of women of different social classes in a still highly patriarchal society, life among the African elites and intellectuals, including contacts with white Westerners as well as African-Americans, their interactions with many levels of tribal and village life, the impact of sexual violence used as a weapon of war.